BWW Review: SHENANDOAH at Serenbe Playhouse
It's sunset on a Sunday evening as I walk up a dusty pathway heading for the Horseman's Meadow at Serenbe Playhouse where a new production of Shenandoah, a musical adapted from the 1965 Jimmy Stewart film of the same name, plays through April 14. Brilliant orange and purple light blankets the open field to my left. To my right, a Civil War campsite moves into view. Canvas tents soak up the last of the sun, and shadows fall on the faces of soldiers as they rest. Here a few soldiers play poker. There a soldier holds a live chicken, dinner for the weary troops. Still farther on, a few tend to the tired horses. The camp is a spectacle that almost trumps nature's best spectacle, the dazzling sunset of an early spring. But even the grand spectacle of the campsite pales in comparison to the battle that unfolds only moments later on the empty meadow.
Men, some atop real horses, come from nowhere, and we are drenched in the chaotic sound of rapid artillery fire and the light of explosions - the remnants of shots fired from rifles and the fuses of cannons. We are spectators at some battle where many men will die and where few will be able to articulate what it has all been for. That's the Serenbe way of opening a Civil War play. It's the classic Clowdus go-big-or-go-home welcome, and this play needs all the help it can get to rise above its challenges, a heavy-handed script troubled by weakly drawn characters and a lackluster score. Though the script challenges are significant, visionary director Brian Clowdus, along with his creative team and talented cast, including a tentative American Idol-winner Taylor Hicks in his first principal acting role and Broadway's vibrant Rachel Potter, prove that the challenges are not insurmountable as they turn out an effective and memorable staging.
The musical tells the story of the Anderson family, led by patriarch Charlie Anderson (Taylor Hicks), a widower who lives with his large family in the Shenandoah Valley and refuses to choose a side in the war. When Anderson's youngest son, Robert (Pilot Bunch), is taken by Union soldiers, Anderson must take action in order to protect his family.
Clowdus's cast is a solid one. Though headliner Taylor Hicks, admittedly, seldom reaches the level of toughness his dominant patriarchal character begs, partly because he's simply too young to be wholly believable in the part, his role is exceptionally well-sung. His rich and soulful voice, though limited in range, shows off the score to its best advantage, minimizing the hum-drum-ness of some of the more difficult folk songs. Rachel Potter, far more confident in her role of Anne Anderson, wife of one of the young Anderson sons, also sings beautifully. Rounding out the talented cast is a fine group of players, including Serenbe's must-see homegrown actor, Jordan Patrick, a member of the 2017-2018 acting apprentice company at Serenbe. Here, in the role of Sam, the husband of Jenny Anderson, Patrick, fresh off his excellent 2018 performance as Marley in Clowdus's Christmas Carol Experience, commands the stage and turns out another compelling and engaging performance. He is, at once, tender and romantic, tough and courageous. Also not to be missed are young players Caleb Baumann as Gabriel and Pilot Bunch as Robert Anderson. The two dynamic young actors, a duo with excellent chemistry and well-rehearsed performances, provide a lot of fun to balance out the heaviness of the war that surrounds them.
Scenic design is always an important player in the world of immersive Serenbe staging, and Shenandoah boasts another breathtaking turn by the super talented Adam Koch. The gorgeous staging is bolstered by the Anderson house, a wooden structure that stands tall against the night sky as a beacon of hope in the dark times that threaten to tear the Anderson family apart. The structure plays perfectly with Joal Coady's impressive lighting that, from the epic battle preceding the play to the final resonant note discoursing with the onlookers about the perils of war, always casts the perfect light.
We've heard it already. A real carnival. A real helicopter. A real sinking ship. And this spring, it's a real battlefield. Serenbe Playhouse, recently named by Fast Company as one of the most innovative companies of 2018, is in the business of real. Real big. Real bold. Real bang for your buck.
Shenandoah runs through April 14 at Serenbe Playhouse.
For tickets and info, go to www.serenbeplayhouse.com